I’ve attended at least three lifetime’s worth of trade shows and scientific meetings, both as an exhibitor and a hanger-on, and I still find myself wondering before each one whether it’s worth the time and money to go. What do you really get for wearing your shoes down at RSNAAAOSTCTDDWACC, and the like? For big device companies paying major bucks for a top-notch “footprint” in the exhibit hall, it’s about supporting the professional societies, brand-building, and rubbing shoulders with thoughtleaders (a diminished presence could ignite all sorts of rumors and ill will). For emerging medtech companies, though, whose product may be years away from market, the idea of increasing the burn rate to buy booth space seems kind of crazy. But these meetings uniquely and valuably assemble everyday clinicians, scientific glitterati, competitors, potential strategic partners, and even some investors together in captivity under one great big convention center roof.

So the question remains, if you are lacking excess cash or even so much as a working prototype of your gizmo, is it worth even attending scientific meetings, much less exhibiting? For most early stage companies, really until full commercial launch, an official presence in the exhibit hall is generally not a wise investment. While a booth provides a certain legitimacy and anchor point for meeting up with people, it quickly becomes a ball and chain, not to mention that any booth affordable to a start-up is not in a prime location (I have been positioned next to Alcoholics Anonymous more than once, whose services I required by the end of the show).

Best to attend scientific meetings as a free agent, but even then you can waste your time and money, that is unless you follow these five tips to make your trade show investment count:

  • 1. Have clear goals – It is easy to wander around aimlessly at these enormous meetings, hoping to learn something inspiring at a session (you won’t) or run into the “right” people at the networking events (you won’t). Some more realistic objectives might include understanding current practices and trends, investigating your competitors, establishing early relationships with thoughtleaders, conveniently gathering your scientific advisors or investigators, or meeting with potential strategic partners. Before you drop one dollar on registration, make sure you know what you want to accomplish.

  • 2. Pick the right meetings – Not every scientific meeting will be well suited to your goals, and frankly some are just better than others at attracting the right attendees, exhibitors and content. The big meetings are best for connecting with strategics, since the business leadership is more likely to attend, and also good for competitive snooping in the exhibit hall since you can get lost in the crowd. If your goal is to meet with target clinician customers, check with a few to make sure they are attending. Smaller, more focused meetings are usually better for connecting with potential advisors who specialize in that area; there may be less competition for their time at these smaller meetings as well.

  • 3. Start planning early – Review the conference program at least 4-6 weeks in advance of the meeting; the program is a great way to identify clinician thoughtleaders with knowledge relevant to your technology. Reach out to these folks at least 3-4 weeks before the meeting; dance cards tend to fill up very quickly at these events. If you have a truly novel technology, they will probably give you 20 minutes over coffee. Also study the exhibitor list in advance to know which companies have a presence if you want to set up partnering meetings or gather competitive intel (note that the exhibition is generally shorter than the conference when you book your travel). Inside tip – the reps in dark suits manning the booths get quite bored and would talk an inanimate object by the last day of the show.

  • 4. Come prepared – So now you’ve set up your meetings, noted the few must-attend sessions, and planned your exhibit hall time. The next step is to have the right props and materials with you to impress the important people you encounter. Create a short company presentation on your iPad, 4-5 slides maximum, that clearly describes your technology and the problem you are solving. A few select slides from your investor pitch deck should do the trick. Animations or images of your medical technology are also a great way to quickly ground your discussions with clinicians or business people. If your device is small enough and not likely to get you into trouble with TSA, stick some in your bag. Nothing says “we are real” like some devices strewn across the table at Starbucks.

  • 5. Don’t forget to follow up – Take a cue from the reps at the big device companies and follow up diligently on every lead and contact you generate at the meeting. Let them know you are professional and organized; invite them to come by your global headquarters (a.k.a. the sub-sub leased space off the freeway) if they find themselves nearby. Most importantly, articulate a tangible “call to action” and some clear next steps. Do you want them to become advisors to the company? Agree to evaluate your device in a pilot launch? Collaborate on a feasibility study? Keep the drumbeat of communication going so by the next scientific meetings these are old friends who are happy to see you.

With good planning, execution, follow-up, and comfortable shoes, scientific meetings can reap rewards for early stage medtech companies.